World leaders warn Israel against ‘catastrophic’ Rafah ground offensive

Australia, Canada, New Zealand say ‘there is nowhere else for civilians to go’ and urge Israel to ‘listen to its friends’.

children hold pretend bodies wrapped in white sheets during a protest at a refugee camp
Palestinian children march during a protest demanding an end to the war and their right to live, receive an education and play, in Rafah, southern Gaza, on February 14, 2024 [Ahmad Hasaballah/Getty Images]

World leaders are ratcheting up pressure on Israel to abandon its plans for a ground offensive in Rafah as an exodus from the southern Gaza city once declared a “safe zone” which shelters more than half the enclave’s population is under way.

As Israel stepped up its air strikes and artillery fire, Australia, Canada and New Zealand issued a joint statement on Thursday, calling for an “immediate” humanitarian ceasefire”, warning that Israel’s planned operation would have a “devastating” impact on the Palestinians taking refuge in the area.

“There is simply nowhere else for civilians to go,” said the prime ministers of the three countries, Anthony Albanese, Justin Trudeau and Christopher Luxon, adding that Israel “must listen to its friends”.

The leaders pointed out that many of their own citizens and families were among the estimated 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, who have been driven into makeshift camps in Gaza’s southernmost city by Israel’s relentless bombardment across the Strip.

Spain and Ireland also applied pressure on Israel on Wednesday, asking the European Commission to urgently review whether Israel is complying with its human rights obligations in Gaza.

In a joint letter, Pedro Sanchez and Leo Varadkar, the prime ministers of Spain and Ireland respectively, said that attacking Rafah posed “a grave and imminent threat that the international community must urgently confront”.

‘Stop and think seriously’

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said Israel should “stop and think seriously” before launching its ground invasion of Rafah.

Asked whether Israel had breached international law, he said on Monday: “We think it is impossible to see how you can fight a war amongst these people. There’s nowhere for them to go.”

Alexander De Croo, the prime minister of Belgium, said any Rafah operation could generate an “unmitigated humanitarian catastrophe”, as did Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister of Germany, one of Israel’s staunchest allies.

The head of the Arab League warned that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would lead to “a humanitarian disaster” and threaten stability in the region.

“We are calling on all parties that understand the gravity of the situation to act immediately in order to stop these crazy plans,” Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said on Thursday.

“What is the meaning of justice and international organizations if they remain unable to enforce a cease-fire and to put an end to these daily gruesome massacres?” he added.

South Korea expressed deep concern over Israel’s plans and urged for the protection of civilians under international laws, the foreign ministry said in a statement.

Displaced Palestinians stand outside their tents in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on February 14, 2024
Displaced Palestinians stand outside their tents in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on February 14, 2024 [Said Khatib/AFP]

United States President Joe Biden, who faces widespread condemnation for his unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, is reportedly expressing frustration with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu behind closed doors.

Recalling Biden’s comments last week that Israel’s response to the October 7 Hamas attacks that triggered the current conflict had been “over the top”, European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Washington should cut arms supplies to Israel.

“Well, if you believe that too many people are being killed, maybe you should provide less arms in order to prevent so many people being killed,” Borrell told reporters after a meeting of EU development aid ministers in Brussels.

Despite pressure from foreign governments and aid agencies to halt its planned Rafah operation, Israel insists it must push into the city near the border with Egypt and eliminate Hamas battalions.

“We will fight until complete victory and this includes a powerful action also in Rafah after we allow the civilian population to leave the battle zones,” Netanyahu said on Wednesday.

Should the assault go ahead, the risk of atrocities is “serious, real and high”, said the United Nations’ special adviser on the prevention of genocide, Alice Wairimu Nderitu.

Israel’s attacks on Gaza have killed at least 28,663 Palestinians and wounded 68,395 since October 7, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza. The death toll in Israel from the Hamas-led attacks stands at 1,139.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies